I get this question a lot and it is an important one to consider, do the pearl farms kill the oyster?
There is a worldwide pearl industry with over one billion pearls being produced each year. Are the oysters all being killed and, if so, how can I sleep at night?
So, the simple answer of whether pearl farms kill the oyster is.. yes. The end goal of a pearl farm is to breed the mollusks, produce the pearl and ultimately kill the oyster. The mussel meat is then eaten and the shell is repurposed into mother of pearl inlay and other decorative accessories. If you see an oyster that has been completely opened like this, there is no way it will survive. So, this is a good indication that the oyster has been killed.
One of the fascinating things about traveling all over the world visiting pearl farms is that every single pearl farm is different. I can tell you that every single pearl farm does something different from the other. I am amazed at how the practices of one farm does not necessarily translate to the unique environment of another farm! And the same is true when it comes to the life of the pearl bearing oyster. Does the pearl farm kill the oyster? Does the oyster die when the pearl is harvested? Typically, yes, but it also depends on the pearl farm!
First stop is the freshwater lake region outside of Shanghai, China that produces the most pearls each year. They have cross bred mollusks and produced the triangle mollusk that can hold up to 30 pearls in one nucleation. These mollusks are then opened and the meat and pearls are removed from the shell. This meat is separated from the pearl (because pearls are formed in the soft tissue of the mollusk) in a centrifuge. The meat is then roasted and added to animal meat, the shells are removed for mother of pearl inlay and the pearls are graded and sorted. I created an awesome video on See A Pearl Farm in China.
The Sea of Cortez pearl farm in Mexico does in fact kill its stock of Pteria Sterna when it harvests the pearl. However, the oysters are actually at the end of their lifespan. The Pteria Sterna has a natural lifespan of five years which is surprisingly short in the life of most bivalve mollusks. At least the mollusks I have seen in other pearl farms. And this five years is a best case scenario.
The Philippines and beyond
In a majority of saltwater productions in The Philippines, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Australia and more, they will harvest the oyster by only opening the shell a bit and carefully extracting the pearl. If the pearl is a good pearl, the oyster is renucleated to produce another pearl in the next 18 months to 2 years. If not, the oyster is killed, the meat is eaten and the shell may be reused for mother of pearl beads or mother of pearl inlay.
I remember when I visited an oyster hatchery in The Philippines. The male and female mollusks are placed in a tank together to engage in their unique form of reproduction and they must be removed promptly enough so they do not accidentally eat the baby oysters. They are filter feeders, after all, continuously sucking in and expelling water. They may just accidentally suck in the fertilized eggs! So, imagine in the great big ocean, millions of baby mollusks never get a chance at life because Mom or Dad ate them!
We could argue that pearl farms prolong the lifespan of oysters. Back to Mexico: Although the lifespan is five years, of all the young Pteria Sterna in the wild, only 35% of the population actually live to 5 years. The other 65% are killed by predators. So, if these mollusk are not used to produce pearls they may not live the full five years. This is because of the nets.
Pearl farmers place their mollusks in nets to protect them from predators and to keep the mollusks from opening up and expelling the pearl once they are nucleated. So, would the mollusk live longer if they were not protected? Some might and others might not.
Good for the Environment
If you are familiar with the meat and poultry industry, you know that they are a huge strain on the environment. Everything from massive water waste, farm runoff into water sources, methane gas from cows, diseases among the flock, dirty living conditions and more cause environmentalist great concern. Pearls farms are, alternatively, very positive for the environment.
The number one solution to cleaning our ocean waters is to repopulate oysters. As I mentioned, oysters are filter feeders. They are constantly sucking water in and spitting it back out. And the small micro-plankton in the water serve as their food source. This means two things. First, oysters cannot survive in dirty water. And, secondly, by filtering the water in and out of their gills, they clean the water.
Pearl farms are linked to areas with pristine ocean conditions. Many pearl farmers teach the local community about clean water practices. It is good for the oysters and good for local communities.
Even traveling to New York recently, there was a huge push to reintroduce and repopulate oysters in the bay. Oysters are so good for our water environment.
And in Mexico? The oysters have completely turned around the ocean environment in the Sea of Cortez.
So, short answer once again. Yes, in most locations they kill the mollusk after it produces a pearl. Would it have lived as long otherwise? Possibly not! Did it have a positive impact on the water environment while it lived? Absolutely! And finally, what do they do with the dead mollusk? Well, they eat the muscle meat and use the shell so nothing is wasted from this process.
And how am I okay with this...
Bivalve mollusks do not have a central nervous system meaning they do not feel pain like most animals do. So I feel better knowing that the physical sensation of their death cannot be put in the same category of the death of mammals. However, they are still dying. And although many industries kill animals for products including meat, leather, animal products, gelatin, there are so many positive impacts the oysters have prior to their death.
One thing I can hold in reverence is the fact that these filter feeders are essential in creating clean water. And I love seeing firsthand the positive impacts these remote pearl farm have on their communities. Besides the clean water and respect for the natural environment, the increased revenue in remote locations leads to many community offerings. In The Philippines I visited a school build by the pearl farm and followed a local initiative to teach modern, ethical fishing practices.